“The worst journey in the world”: the Arctic convoys of the Second World War

GH Bennett considers whether the achievements of the Second World War Arctic convoys were worth the dangers they faced

Allied convoy PQ 17 is attacked by a German torpedo aircraft on its way across the Arctic Ocean, c1942. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On Christmas Eve 1942 the crew of the fleet destroyer HMS Obdurate were hanging Christmas decorations in the anchorage at Seidisfjord in Iceland. Since commissioning in September they had been involved in operations inside the Arctic Circle, travelling to north Russia and providing distant cover for convoy QP15 as it made its way slowly through the enemy-infested waters. As the crew of HMS Obdurate settled down to make Christmas as best they could, the captain’s voice came over the loudspeaker to announce that at 23.00 hours they would depart to reinforce the escort of convoy JW51B bound for Russia. Good humour gave way to gloom as the crew cleared for sea, wondering at the dangers that lay ahead of them on a route that Churchill would label “the worst journey in the world”.

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It was Churchill who had initiated the convoy route to the Soviet Union following Germany’s attack on the USSR on 22 June 1941. Reaching the country through the Baltic or Black Sea was impossible. Access through the Persian Gulf or Vladivostok involved long voyages followed by lengthy rail journeys. The shortest and quickest way to get aid through was via convoys from British/Icelandic waters to the ice-free port of Murmansk and (when free of ice) to Archangel.

In deciding to send aid to the USSR, Churchill had to set aside his ardent anti-communism, as well as recent bitter memories of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939, the Soviets’ seizure of the Baltic States and eastern Poland, and the Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939–40. Cargoes to the Soviet Union represented a vital hand of friendship from Churchill to Stalin and an important step in constructing the alliance that would defeat Hitler. In November 1941 the USA followed Churchill’s lead in providing assistance to the country.

Since 1945 there has been an active debate among historians, significantly coloured by the Cold War, about the extent to which aid sent to the Soviets was of genuine military significance to the outcome on the eastern front, or whether the primary impact of the Arctic convoys was on the maintenance of the alliance between Britain, the USSR and the USA. Churchill’s account of the Arctic convoys in his book The Second World War is dominated by diplomatic exchanges with Stalin. With Soviet forces suffering horrendous losses in 1941 and 1942, maintaining the Arctic convoys was a vital Anglo-American symbol of continuing support for the Soviet Union.

Unable to launch a second front in Europe to take the pressure off the Soviet armies, the convoys and the Allied heavy bomber offensive represented tangible means by which the British and Americans could affect the balance on the eastern front. Stalin pressed the British and Americans for ever greater supplies in 1941 and 1942 and reacted on an almost personal level to any possibility that the convoy traffic might be interrupted. Yet, it was one thing to offer the hand of friendship, but quite another to continue to maintain the supply route to the Soviet Union in the face of Arctic weather and the actions of a determined enemy.

The first phase of the Arctic convoys lasted from August 1941 to March 1942. In that time 13 convoys (114 merchant ships) sailed to north Russian ports, with nine convoys on the return leg (100 merchant ships). Just two of the merchant ships were sunk, since the Germans, confident of victory in the Soviet Union, made only limited attempts to disrupt the traffic.

Yet even without enemy action, the Arctic convoys represented a marathon of human and mechanical endurance. In the darkness of the Arctic winter, maintaining station in the columns of ships that made up the convoys, while skirting the edge of the pack ice, and steering a zig-zag course, offered major challenges to convoy commodores, escort commanders and watch keepers on ships’ bridges. Navigation presented special problems in high latitudes. Overcast skies frequently prevented observation of the sun or stars, visibility was often restricted, signal flags or lamps might be unreadable, compasses unreliable and binoculars frosted over.

Mountainous seas

Loose floating sea ice was another danger. Unless specifically built for Arctic conditions, the bows of warships and merchant ships were not designed to withstand collisions with substantial chunks of ice. Propellers were also easily damaged. Accommodation on most ships was inadequately insulated. Freezing temperatures, blizzards and mountainous seas meant that ice built up steadily on the upperworks of ships. This could disable machinery (including armament) and make the ship vulnerable to turning turtle through altering the centre of gravity. Axes, mallets, shovels and steam hoses were used to reduce the topside weight of ice, but that meant routinely sending men out on deck in sub-zero temperatures to chip and shovel.

As one Arctic veteran later recorded: “If you didn’t shift the ice the ship could capsize, it was in danger of overturning… We had to try and chip it off with hammers and scrapers – anything you could lay your hands on. They were terrible conditions. You daren’t touch any metal rail on deck as your hand would stick to it.” Frostbite was a constant danger, and immersion in the sea for even a few minutes was virtually a death sentence. Living for days on end in a cold, permanently wet environment took its toll of both crews and ships.

Donald Goodbrand, the telegraphist on HMS Obdurate, recorded his impressions of Christmas Day at sea while on the run to Russia (quoted in Glyn Prysor’s Citizen Sailors: The Royal Navy in the Second World War, Penguin, 2012): “Christmas Day in the Arctic Ocean [involved] watch-keeping, scrubbing decks, clearing up the mess of broken crockery, wet articles of food, clothing and vomit and odds and ends that swirled in sodden masses around the mess deck as water poured through ventilation shafts in the fetid fug provided by closed ports and deadlights, as the ship rolled and pitched in manic desperation.”

While the sun never rose in the depths of the Arctic winter, in the summer it never set, offering considerable opportunities for the enemy forces that pursued the convoys around the North Cape of Norway and on to the Soviet Union. By March 1942 the forces deployed against the Arctic convoys had grown considerably: some 260 Luftwaffe strike aircraft were ready to operate against the Arctic convoys, together with submarines, the battleship Tirpitz, two heavy cruisers, plus supporting destroyers. The battlecruiser Scharnhorst would later join Tirpitz in Norwegian waters as the German navy concentrated its surviving major surface units in the north to threaten the Soviet convoys. As the eastern front victories for the German army of 1941 and early 1942 gave way to defeats and slow collapse, stopping the Arctic convoys became one means to potentially affect the balance in the east.

During the 12 months from March 1942 to March 1943 the Arctic convoys became a byword for the horrors of the war at sea. Ten convoys (265 merchant ships) were sent to the Soviet Union, plus 11 independently routed vessels. Sixty of the merchant vessels would not reach their destination and a further 22 ships were lost on the return leg (which consisted of nine convoys and 27 vessels routed independently) through enemy action, mines and harsh seas.

The losses included the virtual destruction of convoy PQ17 which sailed from Iceland on 27 June 1942. Its 35 merchant ships carried 4,600 tanks and motor vehicles, 300 combat aircraft and over 150,000 tonnes of general cargo. Twenty-four of the merchant vessels were sunk after the convoy was dispersed on 4 July in the mistaken belief that an attack by major German warships was imminent. The losses led to a pause in the flow of convoys and close scrutiny of their operation and value.

The German High Command was jubilant. The Führer Naval Conference on 26 August 1942 recorded: “We can… assume that our submarines and aircraft, which totally destroyed convoy PQ17, have forced the enemy to give up this route temporarily or even fundamentally to change his whole system of supply lines. Supplies to northern ports of Russia remain decisive for the whole conduct of the war waged by the Anglo-Saxons. They must preserve Russia’s strength in order to keep German forces occupied.”

Heroic defence

It was not until 2 September 1942 that convoy PQ18 departed (with a strong escort and aircraft carrier group in support) from Loch Ewe, Scotland. The pressure on the German navy to respond effectively to the renewed convoy traffic became acute by late 1942. On 22 December 1942 Convoy JW51B sailed from Loch Ewe. HMS Obdurate and four other vessels from 17th Destroyer Flotilla joined the convoy on Christmas Day as reinforcement to the existing escort and in anticipation of a potential engagement with German surface ships. On 31 December the convoy was attacked by heavy cruisers Lützow and Admiral Hipper and six destroyers. The convoy’s escort succeeded in holding them away from the merchant ships until the arrival of two covering British cruisers (Sheffield and Jamaica) forced the Germans to withdraw.

This action, the battle of the Barents Sea, cost the escort one destroyer and one minesweeper sunk, and the Germans also lost a destroyer. No merchant ships were lost, the convoy arriving at the Kola inlet on 4 January.

The ineffective handling of the German ships led Hitler to demand the decommissioning of the major surface units of the Kriegsmarine (navy of Nazi Germany). The navy head, Grand Admiral Raeder, resigned rather than accept the decision, leading to his replacement by Admiral Karl Dönitz, head of the submarine arm. Although Dönitz was able to save most of the surface ships from decommissioning, the incident underlined the strategic impact of Arctic operations. The heroic defence of Convoy JW51B during Christmas 1942 had brought Hitler to the point of renouncing any further interest in maintaining a surface fleet capable of carrying out long-range operations.

If the German navy was under the strongest political pressure to stop the convoys, in Allied circles there was considerable resolve to maintain the flow of supplies. For example, Lord Beaverbrook, a close associate of Churchill who had met Stalin in 1941, demanded in the House of Commons on 3 February 1943: “Something much greater must be done… so that Russia may win battles. We must get supplies there. It is no use saying that the convoy system is difficult, that the road is long, that the path is over the sea, and that ships are difficult to come by.”

As the convoys continued to run, Norwegian waters became the graveyard of the pride of the German navy. The battleship Tirpitz was heavily damaged in September 1943 by midget submarines. On Boxing Day that year the battlecruiser Scharnhorst was destroyed in a battle with British heavy units after she had attempted to close with convoy JW55B. Tirpitz was damaged again by attacks by Fleet Air Arm aircraft launched from carriers in April 1944. Reduced in role to little more than a floating gun battery for the coastal defence of Norway, the Tirpitz succumbed to an attack in November 1944 by the Lancasters of No 9 and 617 Squadrons RAF.

The erosion of German military power in the north meant an easing in the grim toll of casualties between April 1943 and May 1945. Eighteen outbound convoys totalling 485 merchant vessels lost just five ships, and 18 return leg convoys (454 merchant ships) lost only eight vessels. By war’s end some 78 convoys had fought their way to and from the Soviet Union. Some 85 merchant ships had been lost, along with 24 Allied warships (including the cruisers HMS Edinburgh and Trinidad). The German navy meanwhile lost 38 ships (including 31 U-boats).

While the casualty lists make grim reading – 829 merchant and 1,944 Royal Navy seamen lost their lives on the Arctic convoys – a considerable volume of cargo had been fought through to its destination. Some 4.5m metric tonnes of cargo had been delivered together with 7,000 aircraft and 5,000 tanks. Those aircraft and tanks made a difference on the battlefield, replacing critical losses in the period 1941 to 1942. The provision of thousands of motor vehicles enhanced the mobility of the Red Army and eased the logistical problems of fighting across a rapidly moving front stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. By 1944 the Red Army was able to launch successive and sustained offensives along the full length of the eastern front.

Political value

The Arctic convoys had a considerable military value in terms of bolstering the material resources of the Red Army and a significant political value in forging the  alliance that would defeat Hitler. Yet their true contribution to victory has to be seen at a more strategic level. The convoys constituted a seaborne northern front against the German empire. Hundreds of aircraft that could have bolstered the German air force on the eastern front, been sent against the Mediterranean convoys or used to disrupt the Allied build-up in the UK were instead deployed to the far north. Likewise the submarines and surface ships operating in Arctic waters were not at large in the Atlantic or the Indian Ocean. The fighter squadrons that provided cover for units like the Tirpitz were not available against the bomber streams targeting Germany’s factories and cities.

Convoys navigating the route to the USSR, and Royal Navy operations against the surface ships deployed against them, underlined the vulnerability of Norway to Anglo-American amphibious operations. That in turn forced the Germans to maintain substantial land forces in Norway. By 1944 the Germans faced a potential amphibious threat to their European empire that ranged from the coast of Norway to the shores of the Aegean.

The Arctic convoys were a classic example of the utility of seapower: making a material difference to a distant and critical battlefield, forcing the enemy to deploy forces needed on other fronts, while offering a highly mobile and effective threat through amphibious operations and carrier-borne aircraft.

After 1945 the Cold War cast a long shadow over the achievements of those who had fought the convoys through ice and fire. Attempts by the Soviets after 1985 to award medals to British veterans became the subject of diplomatic wrangles between the countries. Soviet gratitude to the convoy veterans was considerable, as the website of the Russian embassy in London still demonstrates: “The Allied seamen showed true heroism in their long and perilous sea passages in convoys, being constantly attacked by enemy forces in the appalling weather conditions of the Arctic. The bravery of these men and women who unsparingly fought for the Victory will be always remembered and respected.”

It was not until late 2012 that the British government finally instituted its own campaign medal in the form of the Arctic Star. Seventy years after the event the recognition inevitably came too late for some of those heroes of the ice who had served north of latitude 66° 32’ North.

GH Bennett is a member of the Maritime Strategy and Security Research Group, Plymouth University

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine